PA Agrees to Expand Treatment for People with Severe Mental Illness Held in Jail

June 15, 2017
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HARRISBURG, PA - In a settlement agreement approved by a federal judge today, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) has agreed to provide an influx of resources to fix the commonwealth’s badly under-resourced forensic mental health services, including hiring an expert to examine the system and create a strategy for reducing wait times. The department will also be adding at least 110 new treatment slots.

This settlement stems from a 2015 class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer on behalf of hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails, often in solitary confinement, for months and even years awaiting court-ordered mental health services known as competency restoration treatment.   These people are so sick that they do not understand their criminal charges and cannot help in their defense, which means that under the Constitution they cannot be prosecuted until and unless they become competent.

Despite a January 2016 settlement with DHS to remedy what are believed to be the longest wait times for forensic mental-health treatment in the country, the situation has only worsened.  In their May 2017 motion for a new and modified preliminary injunction, plaintiffs alleged that the waiting list for inmates who need in-patient mental health treatment has grown since the settlement – from about 215 people to over 250 people –  and the wait times for moving them from county jails to treatment facilities has not decreased.  One recently transferred patient waited 788 days in jail in Philadelphia for treatment in a state hospital, and most of the patients transferred to Norristown State Hospital (NSH) have waited in jail for over 300 days.

“Fixing broken governmental institutions is hard, but we sincerely hope that this new court order will decrease Pennsylvania wait times to a constitutional level, which should be about one week,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Under the latest settlement agreement, approved by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo this morning, the commonwealth has agreed to the following:

  • Hire plaintiffs’ recommended experts, Policy Research Associates (PRA) of Delmar, NY, to conduct a thorough assessment of DHS’s competency-restoration systems and processes and produce a report by the end of the year with recommendations to reduce wait times for competency restoration treatment to constitutionally acceptable limits;
  • Create a new “minimum security” unit consisting of 50 new forensic beds at Norristown State Hospital within six months;
  • Add an additional 29 DHS-funded treatment slots in the community (19 in Allegheny County and 10 in Philadelphia) within six months; and
  • Convert at least 30 civil beds at Norristown State Hospital, which serves Eastern Pennsylvania, into forensic-patient beds within 9 months.

“It is imperative that the commonwealth step up.  We have mentally ill people who are being unconstitutionally jailed for hundreds of days,” said David Gersch of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer.

The lawsuit is J.H. v. Dallas. The plaintiffs are represented by Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Gersch, Victoria Killion, Stephen Fenn, and Nicole Tortoriello of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer.

More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, the January 2016 settlement agreement, plaintiffs’ May 2017 preliminary injunction motion and today’s settlement agreement can be found at: www.aclupa.org/dallas.

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